heroic reassurances from both the White House
and the Pentagon that the six-week-old U.S. escalation
in Baghdad and al-Anbar Province is proceeding
on course, suicide car-bombers continue to devastate
Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods, often under the
noses of reinforced American patrols and checkpoints.
Indeed, February was a record month for car bombings,
with at least 44 deadly explosions in Baghdad
alone, and March promises to duplicate the carnage.
bombs, moreover, continue to evolve in horror
and lethality. In January and March, the first
chemical "dirty bomb" explosions took place using
chlorine gas, giving potential new meaning to
the President's missing weapons of mass destruction
in Iraq. The sectarian guerrillas who claim affiliation
with "al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia" are now striking
savagely, and seemingly at will, against dissident
Sunni tribes in al-Anbar province as well as Shiite
areas of Baghdad and Shiite pilgrims on the highways
to the south of the capital. With each massacre,
the bombers refute Bush administration claims
that the U.S. military can "take back and secure"
Baghdad block-by-block or establish its own patrols
and new, fortified mini-bases as a realistic substitute
for local self-defense militias.
February 23rd, for instance, shortly after the
beginning of the "Surge," a suicide truck-bomber
killed 36 Sunnis in Habbaniya, west of Baghdad,
after an imam at a local mosque had denounced
al-Qaeda. Ten days later, a kamikaze driver ploughed
his truck bomb into Baghdad's famed literary bazaar,
the crowded corridor of bookstores and coffee
houses along Mutanabi Street, incinerating at
least 30 people and, perhaps, the last hopes of
an Iraqi intellectual renaissance.
March 10th, another suicide bomber massacred 20
people in Sadr City, just a few hundred yards
away from one of the new U.S. bases. The next
day, a bomber rammed his car into flatbed truck
full of Shiite pilgrims, killing more than 30.
A week later, horror exceeded itself when a car
bomber evidently used two little children as a
decoy to get through a military checkpoint, then
exploded the car with the kids still in the back
a demonstration of a tactic that has proven especially
deadly over the past year, a car-bomb attack on
March 23rd was coordinated with an assailant in
a suicide vest and almost killed Deputy Prime
Minister Salam al-Zubaie, whose tribal alliance,
the Anbar Salvation Council, has accepted funding
from the Americans and been denounced by the jihadis.
it comes to the development of suicide vehicles,
however, the most alarming innovation has, without
doubt, been the debut in January of truck bombs
carrying chlorine gas tanks rigged with explosives.
Of course, "dirty bombs," usually of the nuclear
variety, have been a longtime obsession of anti-terrorism
experts (as well as the producers of TV potboilers),
but the sinister glamour of radioactive devices
-- scattering deadly radiological waste in the
City of London or across midtown Manhattan --
has tended to overshadow the far greater likelihood
that bomb-makers would initially be attracted
to the cheapness and ease of combining explosives
with any number of ordinary industrial caustics
if to emphasize that poison-gas explosions were
now part of their standard arsenal, sectarian
bombers -- identified, as usual, by the American
military as members of "al-Qaeda in Mespotamia"
-- unleashed three successive chlorine suicide-bomb
attacks on March 16th against Sunni towns outside
of Falluja. The two largest attacks involved dump
trucks loaded with 200-gallon chlorine tanks.
Aside from the dozens wounded or killed by the
direct explosions, at least another 350 people
were stricken by the yellow-green clouds of chlorine.
in April 1915, with the first uses of chlorine
gas on the Western Front in World War I, these
explosions sowed widespread panic, underlining
-- as the bombers no doubt intended -- the inability
of the Americans to protect potential allies in
al-Anbar Province, the heartland of the Sunni
insurgency. (The recent discovery of stocks of
chlorine and nitric acid in a Sunni neighborhood
of west Baghdad will hardly assuage those fears.)
shock waves from the March dirty bombs also rattled
windows on the Hudson River, where New York Police
Department (NYPD) experts warned the media that
poor security at local chemical plants raised
the danger of copy-cat attacks using stolen ingredients.
An anonymous senior official in the department's
Counter-Terrorism Bureau told Reuters that "the
NYPD expected would-be attackers targeting New
York to try to import the tactic." At the same
time, New Jersey's two Democratic Senators --
Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg -- complained
that the Bush administration was coddling the
chemical industry by blocking New Jersey and other
states from implementing tougher safety regulations.
back in Iraq, the chlorine clouds and the truck
bombs have deflected U.S. troops into a massive,
desperate hunt for the "makeshift car-bomb factories"
that Major General William Caldwell, chief spokesman
for the Surge, claims proliferate in the gritty
suburbs and industrial estates that ring Baghdad.
image of a clandestine car-bomb industry, by the
way, is rich with irony. Baghdad's factory belt
contains hundreds of state-owned and private factories
that once manufactured canned food, tiles, baby
clothes, transit buses, fertilizers, commercial
glass, and the like. Since the American invasion,
however, the plants are idle, if not derelict,
and their once integrated Sunni-Shiite workforces
are bunkered down, jobless, in increasingly sectarian
neighborhoods. Unemployment in greater Baghdad
is variously estimated in the 40-60% range.
is unlikely that the current raids -- using troops
who would otherwise be securing streets and "winning
hearts and minds" -- will uncover more than a
tiny fraction of the city's bomb "factories."
Indeed, the car bomb -- even more than the roadside
bombs (IEDs) that are filling the Humvee junkyards
-- has proven globally to be an almost invincible
weapon of the ill-armed and underfunded, as well
as the one weapon of mass destruction that the
Bush administration has totally ignored. None
of the American commanders in the field in 2003-2004,
much less the imperial daydreamers in neoconservative
think-tanks back in Washington, seem to have foreseen
the ubiquity of its use.
to a national cross-sectional cluster sample survey
of mortality in Iraq since the U.S. invasion,
carried out by epidemiologists at Johns Hopkins
Bloomberg School of Public Health and Iraqi physicians
(organized through Mustansiriya University in
Baghdad), an estimated 78,000 Iraqis were killed
by several thousand vehicle bombings between March
2003 to June 2006. Moreover, as I explain in my
newly-published history of the car bomb, Buda's
Wagon, there is little hope for any technological
fix or scientific miracle that will allow reliable
detection of a stolen Mercedes with 500 pounds
of C-4 in the trunk or a dump truck laden with
chlorine tanks and high explosives idling in one
of Baghdad's colossal traffic jams. (Checkpoints?
Just a synonym for target of opportunity.)
the meantime, the bombers are obviously wagering
that if they can sustain current levels of carnage,
the Shiite militias will be forced back onto the
streets to protect their neighborhoods (as the
American troops can't), risking a bloody, all-out
confrontation with U.S. forces for the ownership
of the vast Shiite slum of Sadr City and other
Shiite areas in eastern Baghdad. On the other
side, Lieutenant General David Petraeus, counterinsurgency
expert and mastermind of the Surge, must shut
down the car-bombers by the beginning of the summer
or face a likely popular revolt in Sadr City.
With each explosion, his chances of success diminish.
Mike Davis is the author of the just-published
Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb
(Verso) as well as Planet of Slums among many
2007 Mike Davis
April 2, 2007